Having signed two players out of the transfer portal and three guys who played high school basketball in the U.S. or club ball overseas in the past few months, University of Utah basketball coach Craig Smith will have 12 scholarship athletes next week when the Runnin’ Utes reconvene.

NCAA rules allow for 13 scholarships per men’s basketball team in the Division I ranks. Naturally, folks are wondering what Smith and his staff will do with that last available scholarship. Will they stand pat, as they did last year, and go through the season with just 12 grant-in-aid players? Or will they make a late addition?

At this point, it is anybody’s guess. Utah basketball plays it pretty close to the vest on matters such as these, say longtime followers of the program and its recruiting efforts.

“I think we are being super patient with that last spot, and just making sure we get a good fit. I mean, we love what we have coming back, and what we have coming in.” — new Utes basketball assistant Chris Burgess

Another option would be to award the scholarship to 6-foot-5 guard Eli Ballstaedt, the only walk-on remaining on the roster from last year. The Wasatch High product, a rising senior, appeared in 15 games off the bench last year, and averaged 1.5 points and 5.5 minutes per game.

As has been previously reported, BYU graduate transfer Gavin Baxter is joining the squad as a walk-on, which also takes a little bit of pressure off the staff to have 13 scholarship players on board.

Baxter, at 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, was averaging 6.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per game for the Cougars last season before sustaining a season-ending ACL injury. If he’s healthy, he’s arguably as good as anybody the Utes could get this late in the process.

In a far-ranging interview with the Deseret News last week, new Utes assistant coach Chris Burgess said the staff is not going to add a body for the sake of reaching the scholarship limit.

“I think we are being super patient with that last spot, and just making sure we get a good fit. I mean, we love what we have coming back, and what we have coming in,” Burgess said. “And because of the recruiting that this staff has done, we feel that we are in a really good spot where we can be really patient right now with who we go after.”

With the NCAA’s deadline to withdraw from the 2022 NBA draft having passed Wednesday, some potential impact players in the transfer portal are now seemingly available, so Utah could theoretically jump in the ring for a returning player such as Boise State’s Emmanuel Akot or Washington State’s Mouhamed Gueye.

“It could be a big, or a point guard, or a wing,” Burgess said when asked what the Utes’ greatest need is. “It could be best available. We are being really patient because we are excited about everything we have done to this point. There is no particular position that we are looking for right now. We are just going to see what is out there, and if we like it we will go after it.”

One player in the portal who hasn’t announced his intentions yet is former Ute David Jenkins Jr., a high-scoring guard who had flashes of brilliance last year but was inconsistent and then benched in favor of the youth movement Smith preferred.

Jeff Goodman, basketball analyst at Stadium, lists Akot, Gueye, Jenkins, Chattanooga’s Malachi Smith, Northwestern’s Pete Nance, Missouri State’s Isaiah Mosley, Texas’ Courtney Ramey and Memphis’ Emoni Bates among the top transfers still available.

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Speaking to reporters who cover the program in early May, Smith said the Utes will continue to utilize the portal as every other team in the country does, but won’t let that reality keep him from bringing in players he can develop over the course of four or five years.

“Somebody said at the conference meetings (in April) that every year you are building a team because of the portal,” Smith said. “You know what? I still believe you can build a program. Call me naive. Call me whatever you want. Our goal, our mission here, is to build a program sustained for success over the long haul.

“Now certainly you want it in the short term, too. We know how this thing works. You can’t afford too many of these types of years. Like, we all get it. But we are going to build a program.”

Andrew Crowley, who produces the weekly Runnin’ Hoops Podcast and follows Utah basketball recruiting as closely as anybody, said he believes the Utes are “back to square one” in their recruiting for the 2022-23 season.

“Everyone on the original list of guys they were targeting has either committed to Utah or elsewhere,” Crowley said. “… They were content to sit on a scholarship last year, so who knows? They may do the same. Having Baxter (in) as a walk-on probably takes some pressure off of using that last scholarship.”

For his part, Burgess is eager to get back out on the recruiting trail when the next evaluation period comes this summer. Most of his attention, he acknowledges, has turned to class of 2023 recruits.

Asked about the differences recruiting for Utah, instead of BYU, the former Ute said at this stage, it is pretty similar.

“At the University of Utah, we are trying to get the best players that fit our program, that fit coach Smith’s style and fit our locker room, and will help us win Pac-12 games,” Burgess said. “When I was at BYU, I was trying to do the same thing. I was trying to get great players that fit our program, that helped our locker room and that also over the last nine months could be a Big 12-type player. And so that has not changed.”

Utah coach Craig Smith calls out from the bench during game against Colorado at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.
Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith calls out from the bench during game against Colorado at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 5, 2022. Smith and his staff are still exploring the possibility of adding one more player to the roster. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News